Documentary chronicles Steve McQueen’s life at festival in his hometown

Friday, March 28, 2008 | 7:13 p.m. CDT; updated 7:22 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Most people who followed his life believe Steve McQueen, the legendary Hollywood rebel, only visited his hometown of Slater twice since he left around the age of 14.

The first visit, only recently made public, was on a road trip from New York to New Orleans to Los Angeles with filmmaker Richard Martin in the early 1950s. They stopped in Slater on the way, and McQueen asked around for someone he must have known as a youth. He had been raised on a farm by his Uncle Claude.

“He told me that’s where he was raised ... He talked to someone, and they sent him ... a couple blocks away, and the person shook their head, and that was it. He was looking for someone or asking if someone was around, and then we went down south to New Orleans,” Martin said.

It was only a half-hour visit, and the town would not see him again until he was a star, visiting his uncle in Slater while his wife performed in a production at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City.

Martin presented his new documentary “Steve McQueen: An American Rebel” on Thursday night at the Ragtag Cinemacafe in advance of Steve McQueen Day in Slater on Saturday to celebrate the actor’s life. This is the second year for the event in Slater and is planned around what would be the actor’s 78th birthday.

McQueen was a Hollywood icon, acting in over 40 films and television shows and establishing himself as a sex symbol, a western rebel, the king of cool and one of the most famous actors in the world during the 1960s. He was a semipro race car driver, an antique motorcycle and car collector and, later in life, a biplane pilot.

But he also had a troubled childhood. Abandoned by his father and alcoholic mother, he was raised by his uncle on a farm and educated in the Boy’s Republic reform school in California.

The film documented the life of McQueen, shining new light on the time he and Martin were friends in Greenwich Village in the early ‘50s and were “making the rounds in New York.” Martin said this was during the time when Bob Dylan was performing in local bars and McQueen smoked marijuana like other people smoked cigarettes.

“The Greenwich Village was kind of like, you didn’t really know. You were trying to find yourself but you’re not sure what you wanted to do,” Martin said after the film showing. “We said we ought to try acting because everybody else was doing it, people we knew ... but we didn’t conclude that we wanted to be actors. It was kind of like we decided to give it a try, and once we did, we kind of liked it.”

Their lives began to diverge after that, when Martin moved to Europe to produce and direct his own films, and McQueen moved into the world of Hollywood.

The documentary itself parallels the lives of both Martin and McQueen. The documentary on McQueen is interrupted with brief interludes of Martin’s life and the times the two would run into each other and catch up.

Much of the film is in first person, allowing some level of freedom in describing the actor’s character.

“This is the only one I’ve ever done with myself in it at all,” Martin said. “And in fact I started to do it straight, just with McQueen as a straight documentary, but then there were a few others (already) done and there was nothing I could add unless I did it personally, and a couple of friends said, ‘You should really bring yourself into it,’ and that’s why I did it that way.”

As a friend, actor, director and producer himself, Martin was in a unique position to describe the professional development of McQueen in his documentary.

He points to the television show “Wanted: Dead or Alive” — a western featuring McQueen as a bounty hunter with a sawed-off rifle — as the most formative work in the man’s career.

“The learning ground for Steve McQueen was ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive,’ because he was able to see his work, you know he’d do a show weekly and be able to look at it and improve his persona as an actor,” Martin said.

Martin will screen his documentary again in Slater, along with McQueen movies “The Blob” and “Tom Horn,” episodes from “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and several other documentaries about his life. The star’s wife, Barbara McQueen, will be there, along with Marshall Terrell, the actor’s most prominent biographer, and Sgt. Cliff Anderson, a friend of the actor in the Marines. In addition, Loren Janes, one of Hollywood’s great stuntmen who doubled for McQueen in several movies, will show a reel of his best clips.

Other events at the festival are more inclined toward McQueen's interests, such as an antique automobile show with more than 200 cars and 100 motorcycles, a motorcycle rodeo and a tire burn-out contest.

“We are doing things that we think Steve would enjoy if he were around,” said Dan Viets, a Columbia lawyer who convinced officials to host the event last year and is a member of the planning committee. “McQueen was into so many fun things: cars and motorcycles and movies. It’s not just a film festival, it’s about many things.”

Last year, 2,000 people came to the event, doubling the town’s population. Hotels are booked in the surrounding towns of Marshall and Arrowrock.

“We have people who knew Steve McQueen when he was a little kid in Slater, guys that knew him when he was just another classmate of theirs in a one-room school house,” Viets said. “So to bring him together with his widow, his stuntman, his buddy Richard Martin here; it’s really a neat experience. It doesn’t happen anywhere else. It’s the greatest Steve McQueen event anywhere, and there are others.”

Viets thinks the public should appreciate the formative impact that Slater had on a national icon. He describes the town as a rock in McQueen’s torrid childhood.

“For kids growing up in Slater today, I think its important for them to know that they can go out and conquer the world. It doesn’t matter that they’re from a little town in Missouri, they can go out and do what McQueen did.”

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